Dutch farmers back Wilders as centrist nightmares come true

Far-right radical seen as last chance to avoid EU pollution rules.

Geert Wilders is everything European centrists loathe. Now, the far-right Dutch firebrand is winning over the farmers Brussels has spent decades trying to placate.

Wilders — who stood on an anti-migrant, Euroskeptic platform and has previously called for the Quran to be banned — romped to a shock victory in November’s nationwide election in the Netherlands. In the months since, his Party for Freedom (PVV) has struggled to form a coalition government, with larger centrist parties declining to join a power-sharing arrangement.

But a constant voice has been backing him to become one of the most extreme right-wing leaders in Europe’s postwar history: the head of the Farmer–Citizen Movement (BBB) party, Caroline van der Plas.

“We want to form a new coalition, preferably with (center) right-wing parties,” van der Plas told POLITICO in an email, adding it was important to “do justice” to the election result that placed Wilders’ party first.

“We don’t agree on everything PVV stands for, but Wilders has withdrawn many of his positions and proposals. That gives us confidence for the future,” van der Plas said.

Her party has become a key channel for rural discontent since its 2019 formation, even coming first in provincial elections in March 2023.

Beyond the Netherlands, farmer protests have spread across in Europe in recent months, including to Brussels where on Monday tractor-driving agriculturalists clashed with police and left mounds of tires burning on the streets of the European Quarter. Meanwhile, amid angry scenes at a Paris agricultural fair on Saturday, French President Emmanuel Macron vented about the “political manipulation” of farmer concerns; the remarks were seen as aimed at the far-right National Rally.

Macron and other centrists fear farmers in their countries will also be tempted by far-right promises to fight EU green laws. Seeking to prevent traditionally conservative rural areas from backing the far right in June’s EU election, center-right parties have swung back hard against new environmental policies in recent months.

Animus toward the EU’s green policies form the basis of the deal between the BBB and PVV. In particular they have targeted a plan by the current caretaker Dutch government to reduce cattle numbers and force farmers to sell their farms to meet pollution targets.

“There is great despair within the sector,” said van der Plas. “There is almost no financial space left within farms.” Wilders did not respond to a request to comment for this article.

Both Wilders and van der Plas have said they would scrap the pollution reduction plan, even though political opponents and experts say ignoring the EU’s nitrogen limits would be illegal.

The end of farming

If Wilders fails in his bid for power, the alternative would quash farmer hopes of a reprieve. The opportunity to form a government would pass from Wilders to former EU Commissioner and Green Deal chief Frans Timmermans, leader of the joint Labour-Greens ticket and the architect of tougher environmental rules across Europe.

“His Green Deal politics will mean [the] end of farming for many farmers in Europe,” van der Plas said.

Despite finishing far in front with 37 seats in the 150-seat parliament, Wilders’ attempts to form a coalition are not certain of success. To assemble his preferred center-to-right alliance, Wilders needs more than the support of the BBB and its seven seats.

Talks with the centrist New Social Contract (NSC) have been fraught. Meanwhile, the currently governing liberals in the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) have agreed to back Wilders from the sidelines, but will not join his Cabinet.

The NSC, like the BBB, may be political newcomers, but their 20 seats are key to Wilders’ fortunes. To the dismay of farmers’ groups, however, the party’s spokesperson on agriculture, dairy farmer Harm Holman, this month backed a resolution in parliament calling for cuts to livestock numbers and the dismantling of large industrial farms.

That stance prompted the leader of the Farmers Defense Force (FDF) activist group, Mark van den Oever, to post a video featuring a pile of burning tires and van den Oever declaring he “hated” Holman — stirring concern that the violent tone that marred Dutch politics during farmer protests last year might return. Back then, Nature and Nitrogen Minister Christianne van der Wal’s home was blockaded and manure dumped on the street outside.

Heating up

“It’s actually pretty hot right now,” said Jos Ubels, vice president of the FDF, which has organized protests in the Netherlands. “I think most of the farmers are looking at the right side of the political spectrum now … because the left side didn’t do their job as they should.”

Farmers in the Netherlands protest on EU regulations | Robin Utrecht ANP/AFP via Getty Images

The unrest in the Netherlands is the result of decades of industry and government inaction on the high levels of nitrogen affecting natural areas. For years, Dutch farmers have been allowed to spread more animal manure on their land than their counterparts elsewhere in the EU.

But in September 2022, the European Commission decided that the exemption allowing such excessive manure use would end in 2026, requiring farms located in or near protected nature reserves to start complying with stricter standards.

After protracted talks, the government earmarked nearly €1.5 billion last year to compensate farmers who voluntarily closed their farms; Brussels approved the buyout plan in November.

The majority of Dutch citizens support efforts to reduce nitrogen pollution, although farmers also enjoy significant public sympathy.

At a public lecture last week, Timmermans said intensive farms were “very burdensome both socially and ecologically,” and that their number must be reduced.

With the efforts of promoting green reforms, farmers stand to protest to show how it affects them | Lluis Gene/AFP via Getty Images

That leaves farmers and their advocates with few options beyond Wilders’ PVV.

“I’m working with the PVV in the provincial parliament,” said Eddie van Marum, a BBB provincial representative in Groningen and a candidate for the European Parliament. “They are a bit more extreme in their tone. But most of the people are just like us.” 

Should Wilders form a government, however, blanket relief for farmers from the EU’s environmental rules would be “a no go” in legal terms, according to Jeroen Candel, associate professor of food and agricultural policy at Wageningen University. “This is not something you can decide at [the] national level.”

In its election platform, Wilders’ party said it would also rein in the EU’s “hysterical” efforts to tackle greenhouse gases.

His opponents are now looking to EU and international law as backstops as they speculate how far Wilders will go with his burn-it-all-down manifesto.

“Luckily, we have international agreements,” Dutch climate minister Rob Jetten said in an interview with POLITICO. “European policies that narrow the opportunity for a Geert Wilders government to fully stop climate action.”

But for van der Plas and other Netherlands farmers, Wilders remains the only option, she said, until “common sense will prevail again, instead of wishful thinking.”

Source: Politico